Friday, January 30, 2009

The river Jordan and Baptism

Mention baptism, and 9 out of 10 Americans will think of an image.

It's Jesus being baptized in the Jordan river. And in this image, Jesus is standing waist deep in a wide and flowing river. St. John the Baptist is there, too, clothed in camel's hair, ready to dunk Jesus under the water. Maybe there's a dove there, too.

It's such a common image. In lots and lots of churches that immerse, it's in a painting or stained glass behind the baptismal pool.

The problem is that it didn't happen this way. Baptism, yes. By John, yes. Even the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove.

But the Jordan is not deep. It is not a vast and flowing river. There are few spots where an adult can stand waist deep in its waters. It is a shallow, often narrow, and -- visually -- unimpressive river.

We Americans are a water-rich nation. And our mental images are influenced by that richness. We think of rivers, and we think of the Mississippi. We think of vast rivers, enormous lakes, and flowing streams.

Palestine is not like that. Palestine has been -- for thousands of years -- a dry and barren land. Dry and barren lands do not have huge flowing rivers. Palestine is no exception.

The Jordan river is a small -- and in the world's hydrology -- insignificant river. It's no wonder that Naaman, the Syrian who was cleansed (as recorded in 2 Kings 5) grumbled, "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?" He was specifically referring to the Jordan where the prophet, St. Elisha, had commanded him to wash.

None of which takes away from the beauty and glory of the place where our Savior was baptized -- and thereby hallowed all the waters of the world which would be used to wash away the sins of God's people. The importance of the Jordan is not that it is a wide and flowing river. Like many things in the Bible, it is important in spite of its seeming unimportance.

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